Ohio School District Sued for Alleged Unclothed Search of Student and Improper Questioning

close up court courthouse hammer
The Supreme Court and the Sixth Circuit require strong justifications for unclothed searches of students.

An Ohio school district south of Cleveland was sued last week in federal court as a result of the search and questioning of a 10-year-old Muslim boy. The Complaint alleges that, a teacher’s aide, teacher and nurse removed the boy, who is of Palestinian heritage, from class and proceeded to question him about his religion, home life, and his love of God and America.

Later in the day, the Complaint asserts that the boy was questioned further due to teacher’s incorrect suspicions of abuse in the home. This resulted in the boy being asked to lift his shirt and lower his pants to permit school officials to view his body. Ultimately, child protective services in Ohio investigated but clear the plaintiff’s parents of abuse. The suit was then filed against the District and its officials, alleging that the search and questioning were wrongful and negligence in the district’s response following the search.

Infringing on a student’s right to religious freedom or engaging in discrimination on the basis of religious are both plainly prohibited by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Complaint alleges that the questioning of the student, which allegedly included references to his religion, constituted both.

Likewise, the Supreme Court has long held in New Jersey v. T.L.O.that school officials must have reasonable suspicion of a violation of the law or school policy to conduct a search of students and that the search conducted must be reasonable in scope in relation to the matters suspected. As one might imagine, federal courts have been quite skeptical of unclothed searches of students. The Supreme Court in Safford Unified Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. Reddingfound an unclothed search of a female student suspected of possessing ibuprofen tablets in violation of school policy. Subsequently, in Knisley v. Pike County Joint Voc. Sch. Dist., the Sixth Circuit invalidated an unclothed search of a group of students in order to locate a missing credit card. While suspected abuse, in theory, may provide a justification for school officials to conduct a search, the court in the new suit will most certainly be focused on whether the suspicion was strong enough to justify the invasion into the student’s privacy.

Moreover, while claims pursued against public entities are generally far more difficult to pursue than those asserted only against individuals, the Complaint also alleges that the district should be held responsible for the violation of rights for several reasons. First, it alleges that district officials altered records to hide the incident. Second, it alleges that the district failed to remove the student from the officials who conducted the search, despite repeated complaints. Normally, when a plaintiff tries to sue a public entity on a theory of inaction, such as the failure to prevent harm, the high “deliberate indifference” standard applies. This is a difficult standard to satisfy but, if proven, alteration of public records is something for which judges and juries alike have little sympathy. It is, of course, very early in the litigation so it remains to be seen whether the plaintiff will present sufficient proof to show his rights were violated and avoid qualified official immunity.

KY School District Sued for Alleged Unclothed Search of Middle School Student

Earlier this month, a middle school student filed suit in federal court against a Kentucky school district for an allegedly unconstitutional “strip” search. The suit alleges that the student was escorted to the counselor’s office, asked to remove clothes down to her underwear, and then searched. The facts precipitating the search are not clearly identified in the Complaint, however, so it remains unclear what evidence the alleged search was intended to reveal.

There is a well-established body of law in the Sixth Circuit as to searches of students. Because public school officials are state actors, two Supreme Court decisions make clear that students enjoy Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches at school. The first, New Jersey v. TLO set the standard that a search of a student is permissible if it is reasonable at its inception (i.e. based on an individualized suspicion that the search will produce evidence that the student has violated a school rule or the law) and reasonable in scope (i.e. not overly intrusive under the circumstances). The second, Safford Unified Sch. Dist. #1 v. Redding, addressed unclothed searches specifically and found that a search of a student’s person, which involved removing outer clothing and moving underclothes in front of a school nurse, was unjustified since prior searches of the student’s outer clothes and belongings produced no contraband.

Furthermore, Sixth Circuit authority has suggested that school officials who conduct unclothed on students without proper justification or of unreasonable scope may be subjected to individual liability. As public officials, school employees are entitled to the defense of qualified immunity (or qualified official immunity under Kentucky law) on claims asserted against them so long as their conduct does not violate clearly established law. Yet, as early as 2005, the Sixth Circuit in Beard v. Whitmore Lake School District, held that strip searches of students without appropriate justification violate clearly established law.

Given this, many Kentucky school districts have policies expressly prohibiting strip searches of students. The Complaint in this action alleges that the District failed to train and supervise its staff with respect to student searches. Nevertheless, discovery will likely be necessary to determine if the facts alleged as to the search are accurate and what policies, procedures, and training the district adopted for its staff.